Sunday, 6 November 2011


The MTV Europe Music Awards started in 1994 with a spectacular concert next to Berlin's Brandenburg Gate. Since then the annual popfest has been held in a host of cities across Europe, only returning to the same city once (with Berlin's 2010 event). 

It has been held 18 times, in ten countries. Two countries have hosted the event four times (the UK and Germany) and two have held it twice (Italy and Spain). It has been held once in Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Ireland, France and Portugal. 

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Lordly language

There are few words that carry as much weight in the English language as ‘lord’. Lord is used to describe both God and Jesus Christ in the Bible, where the word is used over seven thousand times. The word also has a myriad temporal meanings – the master, ruler or sovereign of men. The upper chamber of the Houses of Parliament is still called the House of Lords, and newly ennobled male peers take lord as part of their title.

So to find the word’s humblest of etymological origins was a surprise. David Crystal’s new book The Story of English in 100 Words points out that lord comes from loaf. How did the word used to denote ultimate sovereignty derive from a lump of bread?

The Oxford English Dictionary’s thorough history of the word shows its development. It started out in Old English as hláford – a combination of hláf (bread or loaf) and ward (keeper). The hláford was the keeper of bread, or the head of the household who had responsibility to feed his servants (those who eat his bread, or hláfǽta (bread eaters). Eventually shortened to lord (by the 15th century this spelling was common), it was shorn of its original meaning and elevated in importance.

Other Germanic languages did not follow this etymological development, but share the root in some of their words. So an old German word for ‘employer’ is brotherr, or brot herr – bread-lord (and similarly archaic to the term ‘master and servant’ in English). In Scandinavaen languages ‘meat-mother’ means the mistress of servants (matmoder in Swedish, madmoder in Danish and matmóđir in Icelandic).

All stand, please!

In 1968 John Brunner, a British novelist, worked out that the entire world’s population of 3.5 billion could stand shoulder to should on an island the size of the Isle of Man (572 km²). In 1950 the earth’s 2.5 billion people could have squeezed on to the Isle of Wight (381 km²). He prophesised that by 2010 there would be 7 billion people, and they would fit on an island the size of Zanzibar (1,554 km²).

The result was his novel Stand on Zanzibar which centred on the consequences of overpopulation. His societal predictions were not fulfilled, but he was only a year out in working out when the earth would welcome number 7,000,000,000.

And what happens next to the world’s population? The UN has predicted that by 2050 there will be 9.3 billion. This future world would need an island the size of Tenerife (Spain) or Maui (Hawaii, USA) to fit its burgeoning populations.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Ticket to Vokzal

The Russian word for a main train station is Vokzal (воксал). Say it out loud - does it remind you of anything? Say it in a suitably English accent, and it sounds like Vauxhall. Is this a coincidence, or is there an etymological connection between this minor suburban railway station on the London and South Western Railway and the grand Imperial terminii of Tsarist Russia?
The most beguiling story is that Vauxhall Station was the location chosen to show off British technological prowess to a Russian delegation. Just a short trip down river from the Houses of Parliament, it was an ideal location to demonstrate the workings of a railway network with a newly built station. According to this explanation, the Russiansmisinterpreted the place name as a descriptor, and became the generic term for all Russian railway stations. From this root, a number of fabulous embellishments were added. From Tsar Nicholas I being personally responsible for the mistake on his trip to London in 1844 to Russian readers of Bradshaw's timetable mistaking the prominent name Vauxhall as being the correct term describing the terminus of the L&SWR (in the days before the L&SWR had pushed through to Waterloo Station).
Unfortunately, whilst this makes the best story, it is almost certainly untrue (not least because Russian Railways predate the establishment of Vauxhall Station by one year). But this does not mean there is no connection between Russian railways and the southern London suburb. For centuries, Vauxhall was synonomous with entertainment. Several acres of gardens, tree-lined walkways and pavillions made up the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. With lanterns, fireworks, music, theatre, hot air balloons and even a 1,000 man re-enactment of the battle of Waterloo, the Pleasure Gardens provided the capital with unrivalled escapism from the mid 17th century.
It was so famous that the name 'Vauxhall' was used by similar pleasure grounds around the world. It had entered the Russian language as Vokzal, and pleasure grounds within the estate of the Pavlovsk Palace in St. Petersburg soon bore this name. The first railway in Russia served Imperial interests, running from Saint Petersburg via Tsarskoye Selo (the Tsar's Village) to the Pavlovsk Palace. Its terminus near the Pavlovsk Palace's pleasure grounds soon adopted the name Vokzal, which then went on to provide the generic term for teminii in Russian.
There are other interesting etymological explanations. Some have suggested that it derives from the German Volkssaal (people's hall), or the Russian vokalny zal (vocal hall). The latter allegedly deriving from the tradition of great Russian singers being honoured by performances in major railway stations. Neither are particularly convincing, but add more colour and confusion to this mystery.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Amazing words

Have you ever piled on the pounds after a particularly nasty breakup? Seen your weight increase during periods of stress? It is a concept many will be familiar with. But only in German does the phenomena merit its own word – Kummerspeck. Kummerspeck translates as the excess weight gained from emotional overeating, but literally means grief bacon.

Mental Floss have gathered together 29 of the best examples of these words (volume 1 and volume 2). Many will be familiar with schadenfreude but what about fremdschämen – the cringing embarrassment you get when you see someone else putting their foot in it. Think Inbetweeners or  Meet the Parents.

Out of the 29, my favourite three are:

1. Gumusservi (Turkish) - meaning the moonlight shining on water.

2. Bakku-shan (Japanese) – the experience of seeing a woman who appears pretty from behind but not from the front (familiar to fans of Clueless as a “total Monet”, or in Viz’s Profanasaurus if blonde as a golden deceiver).

3. Tartle (Scots) – the panicked hesitation moments before introducing someone whose name you can’t remember. 

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The deadliest battle

More people died in the Siege of Leningrad than the combined World War Two losses of the United Kingdom and United States combined. The Siege, also known as the Leningrad Blockade, lasted 872 days and, according to some estimates, resulted in over a million deaths each from the Red Army and the civilian population.

Estimates of total deaths range from 1,117,000 to 4,500,000, but even at the lower end of estimates it ranks as one of the, if not the, bloodiest battles in recorded history. In total casualties it rivals two other bloodbaths of the Eastern Front - the Battle of Stalingrad (with losses estimated at between 1,250,000 and 1,798,619) and the Battle of Moscow (estimates of 930,000 to 1,680,000 dead). It probably exceeded the losses in the Battle of the Somme (with approximately 1,200,000 dead).

Many of the civilian deaths came from starvation, particularly in the savage winter of 1941 – 1942. During this period the official bread ration was reduced to 125 grams with the bulk of this meagre sustenance comprising sawdust and plaster. Cannibalism became such a threat to morale that the Leningrad Police formed a unit to deal with cannibals. 

Leningrad was rewarded with the Order of Lenin to commemorate its bravery. It took more than laudatory speeches and medals to restore the city – its population collapsed to 600,000 and only returned to its pre-war level of three million in the 1960s.

Magic line

Please visit the new website at

The American-Canadian border is often referred to as the 49th parallel as it runs for much of its length along the 49th parallel north. It is the longest border between two countries in the world, stretching 8,891 kilometers (5,525 miles) (including the Alaska-Yukon/British Columbia frontier). The continuous border stretches 6,416 kilometres (3987 miles) between Douglas (British Columbia) and Blaine (Washington) on the Pacific coast to Lubeck (Maine) and Welshpool (New Brunswick).
A Convention between the British and Americans in 1818 settled the US and Canadian boundary for the great western expanses at the 49th parallel. This was largely academic as  neither the United Kingdom nor the United States was immediately sovereign over the territories on its side of the line. Control of vast tracts of prarie and forestland still rested with the local First Nations, including the Métis, Assiniboine, Lakota and Blackfoot. Among these nations, the 49th parallel was nicknamed the 'Medicine Line' because of its seemingly magical ability to prevent U.S. soldiers from crossing it.

Monkey business

Shimla is currently the capital city of Himachal Pradesh. Under its former name, Simla, it was the summer capital of the British Raj. As temperatures and humidity soared on the sweltering plains below, the ruling classes of the sub-continent would head to the mountains, climbing into the cooler climes of the Himilayan foothills.

Apparently a slice of Surrey in the foothills, it is an architecturally arresting sight. Sir Edward Lutyens was on his way to his commission to build the imperial capital at New Delhi, and inspected Simla. He wasn't impressed:

"It is inconceivable and consequently very English! - to have a capital as Simla, entirely of tin roofs ... if one was told monkeys had built it all one could only say 'What wonderful monkeys! They must be shot in case they do it again'."

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Uncivil war

In the seven years between 1642 and 1649 a staggering one in ten of the adult male population of the British Isles died. This was more than three times the proportion that died in the First World War and more than five times the proportion that died in World War Two.

If disease, dislocation and famine are added to battle deaths, and the timeframe extended to include the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland (1649 – 1653) the total number of dead could be as high as 868,000. The vast majority of these were in Ireland in the later period (with up to 600,000 deaths).

The English Civil War is poorly named on two main counts – it had an even greater impact on Ireland, Wales and Scotland and was as much warfare between these countries as it was internal strife. As a percentage Ireland was most affected (losing up to 40% of its population), followed by Scotland (6%) and England (3.7%). The total number of civil war deaths in Great Britain is estimated to be around 185,000 – around 4% of the total population (compared to the First World War’s 2.19% and the Second World War’s 0.94%).

Other pre-twentieth century conflicts resulted in a smaller proportional death toll, largely because the fighting took place far from the island fortress. Britain lost between 250,000 and 300,000 in the Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815) (representing just 1.875% of Britain’s growing population) and only 22,000 in the Crimean War. 

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Shocking vocabulary

Electrocute means, and only means, to put to death by means of a powerful electric current. It should not be used for a mere electric shock. This was a distinction I hadn’t full appreciated until reading Mind the Gaffe – something of a pedant’s handbook.

Its first recorded use in English was on 7 June 1889 when New Jersey’s Trenton Times described how a prisoner had volunteered to be ‘electrocuted’ by “testing the new apparatus for executing by electricity”.

New Jersey was not the first state to trial the electric chair, a dubious honour which instead fell to New York. The State of New York set up a committee to determine a more humane method of execution than hanging. The development of the first electric chair became inextricably linked to the bitter contest between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse over electrical standards (the so called ‘war of the currents’). The former had championed direct current (DC) and the latter alternating current (AC).

In the end, the first person to be executed by the electric chair was William Kemmler in New York's Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890. The "state electrician", taking the place of the executioner, was Edwin F. Davis. This first attempt was not a huge success, taking several attempts before the prisoner was finally killed. The New York Herald reported:

“Then from the chair came a sizzling sound, as of [meat] cooking on hand. Following it immediately a billow of smoke came from the body and filled the air of the room with the odor of burning hair.”

Edison had succeeded in ensuring that Westinghouse’s AC standard was used for the electric chair, and must have been delighted that the verb ‘to Westinghouse’ came to be used for electrocution. George Westinghouse was more succinct, noting that “they could have done better with an axe”.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Bad air and miasma

Malaria gets its name from the Italian mala aria (bad air), and was originally associated with the swamps and marshlands of Rome. The word was first recorded in English in 1740, when Horace Walpole wrote: “A horrid thing called the mal'aria, that comes to Rome every summer and kills one”. So ubiquitous was the disease that it acquired a specific name – Roman Fever, where its virulence may have contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire.

The British were horribly afflicted with both malaria and yellow fever, both prevalent in the tropical and sub-tropical climates of their imperial conquests. Western medical science had not yet differentiated these tropical maladies and concluded that they were transmitted by miasmas - a noxious form of “bad air” that was blamed for many unexplained conditions (for example London’s nineteenth century cholera epidemics).

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Welcome to the world, number 7,000,000,000

The United Nations has announced, with headline grabbing flair, that the world will welcome its seven billionth inhabitant on 31 October 2011. The prophetic accuracy is tempered by caveats that the date is merely a projection, based on current statistical assumptions. 

Of course, nothing nearly as accurate can be achieved in a world of imperfect census data. United Nations officials have merely balanced guesses on global birth and death rates to arrive at the magic number on the target date. It seems apt that 31 October abuts All Hallows and then All Souls  days, when the faithful departed are commemorated. 

Population growth has shifted away from its traditional centres in Asia, with Africa and Middle East currently witnessing the biggest increases in population. This contrasts with Eastern Europe and Russia, where population has been in decline for a decade. They have recently been joined by Germany and Japan, and Italy looks set to see its population decrease within a few years.

I have sinned

In the frontier thrusting early years of the nineteenth century, the British Army attracted some of the boldest, bravest, most eccentric and unorthodox officers ever to grace the field. Looming large over them all was General Sir Charles James Napier, Commander-in-Chief in India and Governor of Bombay Presidency.

His most notable campaign led to the subjugation Sindh in modern day Pakistan. In conquering the province, Napier had far exceeded his mandate. He had been given orders to quell the insurrection of the region’s Muslim rulers and, instead, greatly augmented the territory under direct British rule.

One of the great anecdotes of military history attached itself to the action. In Punch magazine, Napier was reported as having informed his superiors of his action by sending a messenger with a single word in Latin – ‘Peccavi’. The General assumed the classically educated elites of the East India Company would understand both the translation and its implication.

Peccavi is the past participle for the verb ‘to sin’ and translates as ‘I have sinned’. In overreaching his orders he had fulfilled the pun – he had both sinned and Sindh. And, like many great historical anecdotes, it is a fabrication. The real author was a teenage girl, Catherine Winkworth, whose teacher had submitted her witty Latin observation to Punch magazine. It was reported as a factual report under foreign affairs, and credited to Napier.

General Napier did, however, reinforce his credentials as a member of Britain’s idiosyncratic  Imperial elite by challenging long standing customs he found abhorrent. Chief amongst these was the practise of Sati, the immolation of the still living widow on the funeral pyre of her dead husband. He stated that he was prepared to tolerate the custom but only if English customs were similarly followed:

"Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs."

The widow was thus saved, and the practice ultimately banned in areas under British control. 

Thursday, 22 September 2011

International rescue

In 1807 the Slave Trade Act was passed, making the slave trade illegal throughout the British Empire. The statutory manumission of slaves within British possessions would follow in the Slavery Abolition Act 1833.

The Royal Navy was the means by which the 1807 Act was to be upheld, with British ships forming the bulk of the West Africa Squadron. This was officially a multi-national force, and ships from Prussia, the Netherlands and Portugal assisted the Royal Navy. The United States constituted the African Slave Trade Patrol in 1819, despite slavery remaining an integral feature of southern American life until the 1860s.

In parallel with her military endeavours, Britain used her post-Napoleonic power to press for diplomatic suppression of slavery. Over 30 treaties were entered into, covering all of the major Atlantic powers (Portugal, Spain, France and the Netherlands), some distinctly non-maritime powers (Austria and Prussia) and many small countries (Sardinia, Naples and Tuscany).

All of this added legal and diplomatic complexities to the practical difficulties of the West African Squadron. Rule books were provided to Captains detailing treaties in effect with various countries, and outlining the rights of inspection, search and seizure.

All of this combined with miserable conditions adrift the hostile, pestilent and humid African coast. Violent clashes with well armed slavers added to mortality rates that were nearly six times that of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean patrols.

Whilst some sailors and commanders had humanitarian or religious reasons for enduring their harsh regime, the prospect of prize money for captured ships and ‘head money’ for freed slaves also made duties more bearable. According to Jan Morris in Heaven’s Command, this amounted to £5 per head if the freed slave was alive and £2.10s if they were dead.

Dealing with debt

This is a tale of two tables and a moral on lies, damned lies and statistics. This morning’s Daily Chart in the Economist features a table of government debt. Streaking ahead of the rest, the dubious distinction of topping this chart fell to Japan, with gross government debt reaching 230% of GDP.

The financial markets are swirling with speculation on an imminent Greek debt default, and the Hellenes labour under debt at 165% of GDP. The article explains that Japan’s debt is more manageable than the Greeks because the vast majority of it is domestically held, and because a decent chunk is offset by other financial assets.

At the Liberal Democrat party conference, Vince Cable likened the present fiscal situation to being the economic equivalent of war. We are told that our financial position is precarious, and that austerity is the only solution. It might then be a little surprising to see Britain at the foot of the table, with a debt of 80% of GDP. Only Spain does better at a little over 70% of GDP. The stalwarts of fiscal rectitude, Germany, have a debt just above 80% of GDP and the USA has just reached 100% of GDP.

So is all this overblown? Should we pump-prime the beleaguered economy and spend for growth? Another set of statistics suggests that the caution may be justified. These are the figures for the total level of debt (set out in a recent Buttonwood column in the Economist, and also in this article from Global Finance), including government debt but also including business (financial (i.e. banking) and non-financial (i.e. business) and household debt. The graph below (click for large version) demonstrates the relative levels of debt.

Britain comes close to rivalling Japan for the top spot, with an eye wateringly high figure of 466% of GDP. At the foot of the table come the BRICs – Brazil (142%), Russia (71%), India (129%) and China (159%). This is borne out in the Economist’s map, which paints these vast countries in the reassuringly sober green reserved for those with total debt of less than 200% of GDP. Britain and Japan, by contrast, are alarmingly red. 

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Top of the class

Out of the five best performing education systems in the world, four are in Asia. Out of the top ten, seven are in the Asia Pacific region. The OECD collects data on reading, maths and science scores on a standardised basis. Top of the table is Shanghai, China, with top places for each. They are followed by South Korea, Finland, Hong Kong and Singapore. 

The top ten is completed by Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Australia and the Netherlands. Britain, France, Germany and the US are at the bottom of the OECD’s table of 18 countries. In a special report for the Economist, four factors are highlighted as contributing most heavily to school success: decentralisation; focusing on underachieving students, high standards for teachers and a choice for schools. 

Such issues are already forming the basis for the debate in the UK, with the championing of free schools and the resulting decentralisation that this brings. It may prove a useful test of whether these ideas deliver results in practice. One worrying factor is Sweden’s surprise poor showing in the tests – much of the free school agenda is based on Swedish and American models.

Biggest of the big

Westfield Stratford City has opened to a barrage of press attention, helped by large crowds, Nicole Scherzinger and a slow news day. It has been billed as Europe’s largest urban shopping centre, which seems an unusual caveat. What is an ‘urban’ shopping centre and does this descriptor suggest that Stratford City is not Europe’s biggest shopping centre? 

Stratford City has missed out on being the UK’s largest shopping centre, with both the Metro Centre in Gateshead and the Trafford Centre in Greater Manchester being bigger. Stratford City boasts 175,000 m² of total retail space, compared to the Metro Centre’s 194,000 m² and the Trafford Centre’s 177,000 m². 

Perhaps urban should be taken as being more central, given that both the Metro and Trafford Centres enjoy peripheral, motorway based locations. Whilst Stratford isn’t in Zone One of London, it is certainly an urban location. So how does Stratford City compare with other urban centres in the UK? Its nearest city-based rival is its west-London sibling, Westfield London with 150,000 m² of retail space. Manchester’s Arndale Centre has 130,000 m² and Birmingham’s Bull Ring is next with 125,000 m². 

Does this make it the biggest in Europe? It seems that the UK leads Europe in the size of its shopping centres. Although this is not necessarily something to be greatly proud of, it does validate Stratford City’s claim to be Europe’s biggest urban shopping centre. 

European centres are tiddlers compared with the world’s largest temples of Mammon. Asia, the Middle East and America specialise in these vast complexes that are many times bigger than anything seen in the UK. The chart below (click for large version) shows how Stratford City compares with the world’s largest malls.

But size isn’t everything, as is dramatically demonstrated by the New South China Mall in Dongguan. Although the world’s largest by retail area (its 600,000 m² makes it almost 3.5 times as big as Westfield Stratford City) it is currently 99.2% empty. As a vast monument to hubris and belief in China’s economic rise, it is unbeatable. But with just a handful of open shops it is not a retail destination.

Do they like to be by the seaside?

Each September generations of political hacks, geeks and insiders have heard the siren call of the sea and headed to Britain's seaside resort for the annual party conference. Accompanying them, and providing a welcome end of season bump to hotel and guest house owners, are tides of journalistic flotsam and corporate jetsam.

This tradition continued well into the 21st century, but the lure of the coast seems to be losing its automatic and magnetic pull. Labour was the first to break ranks, holding its 2006 conference in Manchester. It returned to the coast with Bournemouth in 2007, and then returned to Manchester in 2008. It was joined that year by the Conservatives, who held their conference in Birmingham and who have not returned to the seaside since. The last to make the break was the Liberal Democrats, who went to Liverpool in 2010. 

This year there are no seaside trips for the big three parties - the Conservative Party will be in Manchester, the Labour Party will visit Liverpool and the Liberal Democrats are currently meeting in Birmingham

Since 1945, two resorts have dominated the party conferences of Labour and the Conservatives (see graph below). Blackpool has chalked up 25 Labour conferences and 29 Conservative conferences. Brighton has hosted 21 Labour conferences and 13 Conservative conferences. There is then a big gap before Bournemouth, Scarborough, Margate and Morecambe (see list below).

Labour Party conferences since 1945

Blackpool 25
Bournemouth 3
Brighton 21
Liverpool 1
London 3
Manchester 3
Margate 4
Morcambe 1
Scarborough 8

Conservative Party conferences since 1945

Birmingham 2
Blackpool 29
Bournemouth 9
Brighton 13
Llandudno 2
London 2
Manchester 2
Margate 1
Scarborough 2

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Under the waters

In terms of rank rottenness, Dunwich would vie with the fictional Dunny-on-the-Wold as the most rotten borough in the British Parliament. By the time of the Reform Act 1832, the bulk of the constituency was underwater, leaving only a tiny village of “44 houses and half a church”

It was a very different Dunwich that received its entitlement to two representatives in Parliament in 1298, and even this was a shrunken, storm-tossed survivor of its medieval glory. At its peak, Dunwich had six parish churches, religious houses for the Grey and Black Friars, a hospital, a shipbuilding yard and port complex and a yearly payment to the Crown of £120 13s 4d and 24,000 herrings.

It was, in short, one of the most important cities, ports and trading centres in England. It was one of the country’s 10 largest cities and arguably the capital of East Anglia. But the angry storm surges of the North Sea could destroy as easily as they brought prosperity. The watery threat had been signalled in the Doomsday Book, which recorded that the town had lost half of its fields to the sea.

But it was a huge, three day long storm in 1286 that signalled the end for Dunwich’s prosperity. The raging sea swept away a large chunk of the town and, most catastrophically, destroyed Dunwich’s natural harbour. Recovery attempts were started -  a prize as rich as Dunwich was not easily abandoned, but these were defeated in an even greater storm of 1328. Dunwich would now begin a long and irreversible journey to decline and destruction.

The extraordinary career of Mr Churchill

Winston Churchill is best known as the war-time Prime Minister who led Britain through survival to victory. Whilst constituting the most celebrated period of his political life, the five years of his premiership in the 1940s represent only a fraction of his overall Parliamentary career.

Churchill was a Member of Parliament for just under 64 years, between 1900 and 1922 and again from 1924 to his retirement in 1964 at the age of 89. During this time he represented five constituencies – Woodford, Epping, Dundee, Manchester North West and Oldham.

Although both his continuous length of service and age on departure are impressive feats, neither are record breakers. The oldest ever serving MP was Francis Knollys, the MP for Reading, who was either 97 or 98 (records being distinctly hazier in the 17th century) when he died in 1648.

Charles Pelham Villiers holds the prize for the longest continuously-serving MP. He was elected in 1835 and remained an MP continuously for over 62 years until his death on January 16, 1898, aged 96 years 13 days. For contrast, the current Father of the House is Sir Peter Tapsell with 44 years of continuous service.

In a varied political career, Churchill held the office of Prime Minister twice (between 1940 and 1946 and 1951 and 1955), was Chancellor of the Exchequer (between 1924 and 1929), Home Secretary (from 1910 and 1911), President of the Board of Trade (between 1908 and 1910), First Lord of the Admiralty (from 1911 to 1916 and again from 1939 to 1940), Minister of Munitions (in 1917) and  Secretary of State for War and Secretary of State for Air (between 1919 and 1921) and Secretary of State for the Colonies (from 1921 to 1922).

He was a Conservative MP in 1900 and crossed the floor to become a Liberal MP in 1904. He would cross back again in 1924 to rejoin the Conservative Party, commenting that “anyone can rat, but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat”.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

The irresistible march of the dragon economy

The ‘Economics focus’ column in the Economist is not the first thing I turn to when my weekly copy arrives. Nestling at the back of the finance and economics section, it is quite rare that I ever read it at all. This week’s column (The celestial economy) drew my attention by presenting the graph above. Depicting the world’s top three countries by economic dominance, it neatly demonstrates the shift of world power from Europe to America and predicts the next shift to China and India.

At the height of Britain’s economic influence, when Britannia ruled the waves and presided over an empire on which the sun never set, it had a 16.4% share of global economic power. This was almost twice the rate of the next two powers combined (Germany on 9.3% and France on 8.3%).

By 1973, the USA had become the world’s economic hyperpower, with an 18.6% share of global economic power. This time the USA’s dominance was clear – it had much more than the next two powers combined (with both Germany and Japan on 8%). By 2010, the rise of China was evident. America was still the leading power (with its economic power at 13.3% compared to China’s 12.3%), but the momentum was clearly with Asia.

In his new book Eclipse: Living in the Shadow of China’s Economic Dominance, Arvind Subramanian argues that China will eclipse America sooner than is thought. By 2030, he forecasts China to have 18% of global economic power and for the USA to have slipped to just 10.1%. India now features in the top three, and, at 6.3%, starts to close the gap with the USA. The reason for the decisive shift eastwards? Subramanian argues it is the threefold combination of demography, convergence and “gravity”.

Millions on the payroll

A special report on the future of jobs in this week’s Economist included a list of the world’s top ten employers. In 2010 the two largest employers in the world were the US Department of Defence (covering all branches of the American armed forces) and the Chinese Army, with 3.2m and 2.3m employees respectively.

The list demonstrates a number of trends, including the rise of China (five of the top ten are Chinese companies (including Hon Hai, who are headquartered in Taiwan)), the scale of state concerns (only three of the top ten are private companies) and the global power of Walmart, whose workforce almost equals the Chinese Army and makes it easily the biggest private sector employer.

The most interesting name for me was the one I had never heard of. Hon Hai Precision Industry entered the list at number 10 with 800,000 employees. Hoovers describe Hon Hai as “the biggest electronics company that you have never heard of”. Its principal subsidiary, Foxconn, is better known following a series of employee suicides and scandals.

Hon Hai are the manufacturing muscle behind Apple’s recent success stories. From iPods to iPads, Hon Hai has provided the components and assembled the products. It has not put all its eggs in one basket and also makes mobile phones for Nokia, computers for Dell and electronics for Sony.

Friday, 9 September 2011

The escape of the sound of heaven

Gregorio Allegri’s ‘Miserere mei, Deus’ is one of the most devastatingly beautiful pieces of choral works ever composed. It is perhaps the best known example of late-Renaissance music, but, if the strictures of the Papacy had been followed, it would have been unknown outside of the confines of the Sistine Chapel.

The piece was written sometime before 1638 and had become so famous in the next century that the Papacy banned, on the pain of excommunication, its performance outside of the Sistine Chapel. For many years, the only way of hearing the music would be to attend one of the two Holy Week matins services in which it was performed.

Rarely can the senses have been so ravished – the Baroque splendour of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, the soaring voices of the Papal Choir and the otherworldly genius of Allegri’s composition provide the evocative setting. At 3 am, the service would begin, with the light of 27 candles burning brightly, dancing sacred light off the newly painted frescoes. They were extinguished one by one until only a single flame was left. The service was often led by the Pope, and must have been an experience of religious ecstasy for the Holy Week pilgrims. Rarely can the divine have been so sumptuously invoked.

It was this expression of devotion that was so jealously guarded by the Supreme Pontiff. Whether out of fear of the music’s impact being diluted or a simple desire to retain the celebrated work within the confines of Rome and thereby ensure the attendance of devotees, the Papacy forbade the work to be written down or sung outside of the Sistine Chapel.

The music remained largely confined to Rome until its next brush with genius. On 11 April 1770 Leopold Mozart and his son Wolfgang arrived in Rome as part of their grand tour of Italy. They had arrived in Holy Week, in time for Easter and in time to attend the Wednesday Tenebrae in the Sistine Chapel and hear the famous Miserere.

The 12-year old prodigy then returned to his lodgings and committed the piece to paper entirely from memory. He returned to the Sistine Chapel on Good Friday to review his manuscript, and made a few minor corrections. His father boasted of his son’s achievements in a letter to his wife dated 14 April 1770:

"…You have often heard of the famous Miserere in Rome, which is so greatly prized that the performers are forbidden on pain of excommunication to take away a single part of it, copy it or to give it to anyone. But we have it already. Wolfgang has written it down and we would have sent it to Salzburg in this letter, if it were not necessary for us to be there to perform it. But the manner of performance contributes more to its effect than the composition itself. Moreover, as it is one of the secrets of Rome, we do not wish to let it fall into other hands…."

Mozart may not have let loose the secrets of Rome, but the composition did soon after find its way to London via Dr Charles Burney. And, once revealed, the music became widely available. It is unlikely that Mozart was the sole conduit for its circulation - written copies had been made available to the Holy Roman Emperor, for example - but Mozart was the composer best able to do justice to Allegri's composition.

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